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Black Bear Pass is one of the most dangerous off-road driving destinations in the world. Situated between Red Mountain Pass on U.S. Highway 500 and Telluride, Black Bear Road (U.S. Forest Service Road 648) claims hundreds of accidents and even deaths every year. In this article, we’ll show you how to prepare for and conquer Black Bear Pass in Colorado.
How can you master the Black Bear Pass in Colorado? You’ll need to prepare thoroughly, and be fully aware of the weather and road conditions that can impact a successful crossing. The trail is not for novices, so you’ll have to hone your off-road driving skills. There are lots of steep switchbacks, and you’ll need a clear head navigating them. But the pay-out is truly worth it, with amazing scenery and a great rush of adrenaline!
Black Bear Pass was made famous in 1975 in C.W. McCall’s music and has captured the imagination of off-road drivers ever since. The road leading to it starts 13 miles south of Ouray, at 11,018 ft altitude, and climbs to 12,840 ft at the summit. You can only drive this road from Red Mountain Pass to Telluride, CO, except once a year when the Jeeper’s Jamboree is on. Let’s have a look at the best way to conquer the pass in detail.
Black Bear Pass Colorado – You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Drive This Road… But It Helps
The famous sign that marks the start of the trail gives you an idea of the attitude and the gear you’ll need to get across Black Bear Pass. It goes without saying you can only drive it with a 4WD, but what about the preparation?
- First, you need to know that the road is only open for a short part of the year, from the end of July to early autumn. There is often snow up there late in the year, so you can expect more road closures if the road hasn’t been cleared. A good guide for finding out if the Pass is open can be found on the San Miguel County’s official road conditions website.
- Second, you’ll have to really watch the weather, even if the road is officially open. After Black Bear Pass, the road is made up of a series of steep switchbacks into Black Bear Pass Telluride. These can be made impossible to drive in wet weather. Moreover, avalanches, heavy snowfall, and landslides are not uncommon at any point in the year. That’s what makes it such an unpredictable challenge. You may want to check with the Ranger station the day you want to go up the Pass, to avoid being stuck by a temporary closure.
And finally, the San Juan Mountains are known to have changeable weather within the day. Afternoon thunderstorms and lightning strikes are common. Consider going early in the day to avoid them.
The Legend: Black Bear Pass Death Toll
Black Bear Pass Road has become more famous for its accident and death toll than its beauty, causing it to be known as Colorado’s most dangerous trail. It is an extremely popular trail, and you can see queues of cars heading up it during the short time it’s open every summer.
In recent years, Black Bear Pass Jeep trips organized by touring agencies have had some unfortunate accidents where drivers have rolled over trying to cross The Steps or the switchback section.
There is no definitive black bear pass accident toll; however, the San Miguel County Sheriff’s office has closed the trail a few times a year recently, as the road’s popularity has grown. While most drivers who attempt the Pass have significant off-roading experience, 2015 brought more serious concerns about inexperienced tourists tackling the road. There was even a discussion about closing the trail permanently after one of that year’s accidents.
Be Ready for the Toughest Sections
Overall, the road is moderately difficult, and the way up from the sign to Black Bear Pass is absolutely beautiful. At the summit, you’ll find a car park and place to stop and take in the breath-taking mountain landscape.
Afterward, the road turns into a single-track, and you cannot turn back. This is where you have to be fully committed and use top-level skills and concentration. The hair-raising switchbacks down to Telluride are made even more intense by the sheer drop-offs and the shelf road sections.
Here’s a summary of what to expect:
- The point-to-point trip is about 10 miles long, but will take around 3 hours even for the most experienced driver
- Start off with a moderately easy off-road drive from the start point just south of Red Mountain Pass to the top of Black Bear Pass (c. 3.2 miles)
- Descend into three consecutive basins
- The one-way section – also a return point if you’re in an unlicensed off-highway vehicle (due to regulations in Telluride not allowing these into town). This marks the beginning of “The Steps” – a series of steep, technical rock steps. Sometimes the road is off-camber with massive drops on the driver’s side. Lots of focus required!
- The first one is also the sharpest, with a few rocky ledges where you might feel your tyres slipping. Take your time – steady driving is your best approach here. Low gearing is key, and make sure your breaks are in good shape.
- Bridal Veil Falls and Ingram Falls make for stunning stopovers to regain your composure in this section.
- Going back into the switchbacks, a good technique is to go over until the bumper hangs over the side on each switchback, then back up until you hit the mountain. It’s slow going, but a great thrill.
- Crossing Ingram Stream also poses a bit of a challenge – not the crossing itself, but the fact that you will have wet tyres afterwards and can slip on the granite slabs below. So be extra careful there.
Finally, get down into Telluride!
Have the Right Type of Vehicle
The United States Forest Service recommends high-clearance, short wheelbase vehicles only. This is also echoed by those who have successfully navigated across the road.
An excellent idea would be to also have a skilled spotter with you. You need as many pairs of able eyes you can have, as the road is uneven and often slants towards the drop-off, making it doubly dangerous on the descent.
Another tip is to go in pairs, with a second vehicle available in case you get stuck in muddy snow walls, which can be present all year round. Some drivers have been caught out by the snow or by careless slides into a gravel section off-camber and struggled to free themselves from that spot. Having a second vehicle sorts that out as they can hopefully pull you out!
Prepare to be Stunned
We’ve covered the difficulties, but let’s not forget the reason you’re going to Black Bear Pass: the beauty of the scenery and the fun of the ride.
The San Juan Mountains are notoriously scenic and can display some fantastic views. Make sure you take in the Ingram Basin and the rugged ridges you can admire from the car park at the top of Black Bear Pass.
As you make your way down, you will pass Ingram Lake and Black Bear Mine. Here is where you’ll get a feel for the history of the road. It was built by miners and never really meant to support much traffic – hence its narrowness going down into Telluride.
Bridal Veil Falls – the highest waterfall in Colorado – is a unique sight to soothe tired eyes as you’ve made it through the toughest section of road you may ever drive.
If you’re interested in mining history, ruins, wildflowers, or alpine lakes, the Black Bear Pass has something for every interest beyond the stunning drive alone. Mountain lovers also hike it, and it’s an excellent point of access to the San Juan High Country above Telluride, for onward hikes and climbs.
Beyond Black Bear Pass
There are some additional amazing Colorado trails you may want to check out if you’ve traveled all the way to San Miguel County. Here are our top picks:
- Ophir Pass – rocky granite trail up to 11,789 ft with technical, challenging terrain on the descent, and lots of old mining ruins along the way
- Imogene Pass – the 17 miles between Telluride and Ouray, crossing over at 13,114 ft, the second-highest pass in Colorado
Black Bear Pass Colorado – an Amazing Off-Roading Adventure
There you have it, all the tips you need to know to make it over Black Bear Pass safely and securely while enjoying the ride. This is one of the most exciting trails in Colorado and offers the best balance of stunning views and technical difficulty, all while giving you a real adrenaline rush.